How do you repeat a one-off? Wigan Athletic, whose scramble to safety was one of the stories of last season, are threatening to do the same again this year, with even more style.
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Having been bottom of the Premier League for most of January, February and March, Roberto Martinez's team have played their way to a remarkable sequence of results, winning four of their last five games, against Liverpool, Stoke City, Manchester United and Arsenal.
Not many sides in Wigan's position could play with that same trust in their players and their novel system, with confidence with and without the ball, with utter freedom from that dread of the drop which often freezes their relegation rivals.
This absence of fear liberates them to play the stirring football they do. "I think the manager has a real calmness about him in this situation, when others could really start to panic and lose your head a bit," captain Gary Caldwell revealed after Monday's night's 2-1 win at Arsenal. "He really keeps the group calm, and focuses on performance rather than result – I think if you do that then the results come."
That is football bravery: trusting that constructive play will deliver results, rather than just staying in games and hoping they break your way. For much of this season the results have not followed, but Martinez's recent development of an inventive, coiled-spring 3-4-3 system has delivered them.
"We've been playing well for a while now, the mood's been good and the spirit's been good," Caldwell said. "We played West Brom at home, and probably played the best we've played out of this run and drew the game. And I think since then we've learned a few lessons, that when we're in front we have to keep playing and we have to be a lot more solid when we're defending. We are better at that now."
Wigan were certainly good at both on Monday night. It was a perfect example of a plan well executed, of a side both defending and attacking as a team. Two fast breaks brought two early goals by Franco di Santo and Jordi Gomez, both owing to the numbers thrown forward by that balanced 3-4-3 formation.
Once ahead, Wigan were perfectly designed to cope. The arrangement of players provides more passing angles than a 4-4-2 would, and with the players all competent and confident in possession, they retain the ball well. When Arsenal had it, Wigan's wing-backs could drop into a back five, preventing Arsenal from ever working an overlap.
"We defended in numbers, and got people behind the ball and worked really hard," Caldwell explained. "I thought the front men, again, have worked really hard to stop easy balls coming forward. And then as defenders you just have to get in good positions and see it out. The whole team effort is there and it has been there for a long time now. We just have to maintain that."
The job is not done yet. Wigan have four games left, although with two of them against Blackburn and Wolves, their chances look better than they have done all season.
Staying up would vindicate utterly Martinez's approach, not just in the game's aesthetics but in the challenge that he and the owner, Dave Whelan, have set themselves.
"For a number of years now the manager's come in and tried to change the philosophy of the football club, and it takes a long time to do that," Caldwell said. "We're slowly getting there. The owner deserves great credit for sticking by him. At the end of the day this is his football club. He puts all his money, effort and time in. And for a club like Wigan to be in the Premiership such a long time is a great testament."Reuse content